Note: I’ve been away from this blog for nearly five months. The reasons behind my absence will be the subject of a future post but had nothing to do with anything sinister like illness or incarceration. Truth be told, I was utterly sick of the internet for reasons entirely political. At any rate, my sabbatical is over and it’s time to get writing again.
Today is the birthday of one on the most influential people in the history of American Art, a man who established a reputation as one of the world’s foremost photographers, helped drag a reluctant America into Modernism, and launched the careers of some of the 20th Century’s revered painters. He was a study in paradoxes. He was a nurturing tyrant. He worked tirelessly to promote “his” artists, privately relishing the role while claiming to detest it. He was of the leisure class yet feigned poverty. He enjoyed the uncritical admiration of a posse of followers while being passionately despised by his enemies. He spoke engagingly of the spiritual power of love but was a bit of a philandering pig. His life story is a fascinating mix of privilege, vision and dedication, situational ethics, and luck.
That man is Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), who was born on New Year’s Day in Hoboken, New Jersey, the first child of German immigrant parents. His father was a successful merchant who provided his children with first-rate European educations. One of his twin brothers went on to become a chemist and educator; the other a physician. Alfred himself abandoned his scientific education (his father wanted him to study engineering) and, on the back of his generous allowance, bummed around Europe for a few years and became a world-class photographer. Between 1887 and 1907, in Europe and, after 1890, in New York, Stieglitz created a body of work that remains as one of the most groundbreaking and enduring in the field of American Art.
Winter- Fifth Avenue (Alfred Stieglitz, 1893)
It was along about this time that Stieglitz began promoting photography as a “Capital A” art, along side painting and sculpture, an idea that the Art Establishment found pretty laughable at the time. Banding together with other influential photographers of the day, he founded a movement, The Photo-Secession, and a gallery similarly named, The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. The gallery would soon be known by it’s address, 291 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, as simply “291.” That gallery, and the journal published there known as “Camera Work,” were noteworthy in two major respects; they established photography as a fine art in the minds of most (but certainly not all) art cognoscenti of the time and, perhaps more importantly, they served as a beachhead through which European Modernism invaded America. Stieglitz soon began to exhibit and write about painting and sculpture in addition to photography. By the time 291 closed in 1917, it had exhibited European artists who were quite unknown in the US at the time but are now included among the most beloved artists ever. The exhibit list includes heavyweights like Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Rodin, and Duchamp.
A number of American photographers and artists gained much of their early notoriety through 291 and through Stieglitz’s two subsequent galleries The Intimate Gallery and An American Place. Photographers Edward Steichen (with whom Stieglitz founded 291) and Paul Strand can both trace their roots back to 291. In Stieglitz’s later years, An American Place featured the work of the likes of Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Edward Weston.
While Stieglitz’s contributions to the development of American Photography were quite impressive, it was his transition to painting that may have left the most lasting imprint on American Art. No, Stieglitz himself did not paint, but he adopted a group of relatively obscure American painters in his 291 days and spent the rest of his life promoting their work, largely at the expense of his own photography. Among the members of the Stieglitz Circle are Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and maybe most notably Georgia O’Keeffe.
The Western Flame (Marsden Hartley, 1920)
Morning Sun (Arthur Dove, 1935)
O’Keeffe’s relationship to Stieglitz is the stuff of legend, the fodder for several books and major portions of the many biographies of both artists. O’Keeffe was laboring as an art instructor at a tiny Texas college when she came to the attention of Stieglitz through a mutual friend on, oddly enough, January 1st, 1916. The circumstances of this discovery are immortalized in the prologue of the book O’Keeffe & Stieglitz: An American Romance by Benita Eisler and repeated just about everywhere anyone has written about the pair. The mutual friend, Anita Pollitzer, a photographer known more for her role in the Stieglitz – O’Keeffe connection than for anything else, took some drawings O’Keeffe has mailed her to show Stieglitz. As mythology has it, Stieglitz immediately felt an attraction to the unseen artist, uttering the words “Finally, a woman on paper.” Summarizing the progression of events that followed, he exhibited the drawings, met O’Keeffe, fell in love with her (despite being married since 1894) and pursued her relentlessly. Within a year or two, they were living scandalously together and would remain a couple (despite frequent infidelity on both their parts) until Stieglitz’s death in 1946. It’s all there at the core of the history of American Art in the first half of the 20th Century, a fascinating story far richer and more complex than I could ever cover here.
Brooklyn Bridge (John Marin, 1912)
I probably know more about Alfred Stieglitz than about any other figure in American Art. I’ve studied his images and read a number of biographies, watched his American Masters episode on PBS, looked at his work in several museums. It was he who led me from a rather parochial interest in photography to a much broader interest in art and an appreciation of painting. Had I not chanced upon a biography in a used book store and recognized his name, I probably wouldn’t be writing these words today. For better or worse, Stieglitz was and remains one of my inspirations.
Lake George (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1922)
I’ve developed this annoying habit of using New Year’s Day to look back on the many roads I’ve traveled and think about how it was I got to wherever it is that I find myself. I think the people close to me find it tedious but I find it refreshing and sometimes inspiring. I find it appropriate to celebrate the beginning of 2013 by reflecting on the role Stieglitz had on me on this, the 149th anniversary of his birth. Thank you, Alfred, for all that you have given me. You were deeply flawed, contradictory, and often insufferable. In other words, you were human.